South Falls at Silver Falls is one of the most visited natural attractions in the state of Oregon, but its past reveals a more complex history of restoration and human-constructed nature. Photo by RickObst - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Building Nature at Silver Falls

Oregon's largest state park is less a preservation of nature and more a monument to the power of ecological restoration, of intentional human rehabilitation of the land.

If there's an overused word when it comes to describing natural areas, it's pristine. Whenever the term is deployed, the implication is clear: people want a place "untrammeled by man." Too much human activity disqualifies a place in the eyes of many, even though our most "pristine" natural areas are today at risk from global environmental threats. This dichotomy of pristine vs. spoiled nature can't hold up any longer.  Looking at the historical trajectory of Silver Falls, now a state park in the heart of Oregon, helps us to interrogate what it is that we want from state parks and natural areas, and how active efforts to restore and build natural areas can create more robust environments than preservation alone.

Location of Silver Falls State Park in Marion County, Oregon, United States. Graphic by Casey Cripe. Image source: Oregon State Parks

The South Falls at Silver Falls State Park makes for one of the prettiest vistas in the state of Oregon. With water falling 177 feet from above, visitors to the park can follow a trail behind the fall before starting on the Trail of Ten Falls, a five-mile loop through the park. The park itself is the largest and one of the most popular parks in the state. Located near the town of Silverton and approximately an hour and a half away from the city of Portland, it’s easily accessible for most of the state’s population. It’s a popular site for film crews looking for Pacific Northwest forests: the live-action Yogi Bear was filmed there, as was Twilight, though of course the park cannot be held responsible for the quality of said films.

Map of the Trail of Ten Falls, from a 20th century printed brochure. Image source: Oregon State Parks

However, Silver Falls looked very different a century ago.  In 01931, South Falls was a tourist attraction, but not for the beauty of the falls. Instead, the owner, Dan Geiser, charged audiences a quarter a person to watch as he dropped automobiles down the falls. Multiple fires had raged through the park in the 01880s. A small town had existed there previously, but by the 01930s it was largely abandoned. A few failing farms dotted the landscape of Silver Falls, though most of them were selling out to logging concessions. Ill-suited for farming, logged over, and remote because most of the state’s highways were still under construction, Silver Falls was neither pristine wilderness nor especially beautiful.

A local photographer named June Drake documented the area through his photography and helped to create awareness of the falls, but his attempts to protect it were running into considerable difficulty. He paid to have the first trails cut around the falls to make them accessible to other visitors, but the damage that was done to the landscape was beyond his ability to fix. In photos from the 01920s, Drake’s shots of the falls were beautiful, but also captured stumps, burned over areas, and dead trees, the result of heavy fires that had raged through Silver Falls years before.

June Drake's 01925 photograph of South Falls features a landscape ravaged by fire. Oregon Historical Society (OHS) digital no. bb007812

Overlogging and farming wasn’t just harming the aesthetics of the area: it also posed a serious risk to its long-term future. Residents had lit brush fires to clear land for farming, destroying most of the old-growth forests in the park. Silver Falls today is close to 9,000 acres, but in 01931, probably just a few hundred acres of old-growth forests remained. Logging was also threatening the watershed for the creek that fed the waterfalls, casting the long-term future of the falls themselves into doubt.

Drake had nominated the area to be a National Park in 01926, but an NPS inspector rejected the site as not being suitable for that designation. It was too heavily logged over and farmed, in the opinion of the inspector. Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane had written in 01918 that national parks had to have “scenery of supreme and distinctive quality or some natural features so extraordinary or unique as to be of national interest and importance.” Natural areas had to be outstanding, and moreover, they could not be too damaged or used by human beings. To admit anything less than the outstanding risked undermining the whole park system.

The effects of logging in the Silver Creek watershed, photographed by June Drake. Source: Drake Bros. Studio Photograph Collection, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Through negotiations with the nearby Salem Chamber of Commerce, Drake convinced them to buy parcels of land around Silver Falls and then turn them over to the state to create a state park. Silver Falls was created as a state park in 01933, but it remained small, and the land was still heavily damaged from decades of logging and farming. Fortunately for Silver Falls, the election of Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency changed the relationship of the federal government with the states, and at least temporarily, with the natural environment.

Roosevelt became president amid multiple disasters, most conspicuously the Great Depression. In addition to a 25% unemployment rate and a wave of bank failures that were annihilating people’s savings, the United States also faced multiple environmental crises in the 01930s. The Dust Bowl was perhaps the most destructive of these: struck by drought, midwestern states saw much of their topsoil turn to dust and simply blow away, creating dust storms that reached as far as Boston and New York. But there were other disasters as well. Flooding along the Ohio River displaced thousands of people in March of 01933, and forest fires threatened the Pacific Northwest.

Winter Falls surrounded by trees damaged by fire, photographed by June Drake. Source: Drake Bros. Studio Photograph Collection, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Roosevelt’s response was to create a series of government agencies that would actively manage the natural environment. The most famous of these was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), modeled after a similar system Roosevelt had implemented as governor of New York. The CCC enlisted young men between the ages of 18 and 25 (with smaller programs for Native Americans and WWI veterans), paying them $25 a month as well as room and board, and put them to work on various nature conservation projects. Ultimately, the CCC employed more than three million people over nine years, and in that time they built up a long list of accomplishments: three billion trees were planted, millions of acres of farmland were protected through soil erosion programs, and thousands of lakes and streams were protected. And, of course, they built parks.

The CCC arrived at Silver Falls in 01935 and built on earlier short-term construction projects done by other New Deal agencies. Several CCC camps worked at the site between 01935 and 01942, when the outbreak of WWII brought an end to the national CCC. Some of their work dealt with cutting trails, building summer camps for Oregon children, and building other park structures. The more important work, however, was restorative. One of their chief jobs was reforesting the area around the falls. With most of the old-growth forest gone, new trees would have to be planted to rejuvenate the forest and protect the watershed along with the falls.

Instead of replanting the park with the original trees, the CCC opted to use Douglas fir and western hemlock that would regrow quickly and propagate. Ultimately, thousands of acres were reforested. In conjunction with that work, CCC workers also constructed firebreaks, removed underbrush, and built infrastructure to help fight future forest fires – no trivial concern, given that the Tillamook Burn in Oregon had burned through hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in 01933. These firebreaks were not natural (and interfered with expected fire ecology for a western forest), but they were judged to be needed for the long-term survival of the park.

Early 20th century visitors of the new Silver Falls State Park take in the natural wonder of South Falls, the park's most iconic waterfall. Photographed by June Drake. OHS digital no. bb007810

What does Silver Falls mean when we think about the idea of the long-term, especially about natural areas? It was part of a larger national environmental movement, the first of such size and scope in the United States, and one that saw all natural areas in the country as resources that needed to be tended to. The problem was that this environmental movement didn’t go far enough. The mobilization for World War II ended the CCC, but the underlying need for something like it never went away. The same places that suffered from the Dust Bowl in the 01930s underwent terrible droughts in the 01950s as well; the solution, instead of better practices around soil erosion, was to simply pump groundwater.

Silver Falls also illustrates how impermanent the natural areas we choose to value really are, especially because of human activity. Euro-American settlement had heavily damaged the land around Silver Falls: whatever it had been before the 19th century was long gone, and it had to be rebuilt and reimagined. What people wanted from parks shifted as the 20th century went on. In the 01960s, attention shifted toward wilderness preservation, perhaps most famously through the 01964 Wilderness Act. The goal of wilderness preservation was to leave places untouched: park development like Silver Falls fell out of favor in light of preserving “pristine” wilderness. Building lodges and concession buildings or reforestation work was seen as too heavy of a hand.

Iconic South Falls, still attracting visitors (and photographers) well into the 21st century. Bureau of Land Management, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, “pristine” wilderness never really existed: it erased indigenous people from their land. It creates arbitrary distinctions between humans and nature, whereas parks like Silver Falls sought to bring humans into nature. Even the architectural style, part of that classical Arts & Crafts park style from the mid-20th century, was supposed to merge human buildings with nature. And the focus on “outstanding” or “singular” beauty nearly left Silver Falls behind and unrehabilitated.

Moreover, the reality of climate change is going to alter every natural area around the globe -- returning them to prior idealized states is going to be impossible. And it’s a reminder that over time, what is or isn’t natural can shift dramatically: the secondary growth forests at Silver Falls will eventually become old growth if you simply wait long enough. It’s not enough to preserve natural areas as they are: in some cases, they need to be rethought or reworked. With the benefit of better ecological science than the CCC had in the 01930s, this can be done.

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